Late last month, we lost one of my most admired entrepreneurs. Felix Dennis, a billionaire publisher and ex-crack addict, passed at the age of 67.
Felix Dennis was best known to me for his excellent book, How to Get Rich. Contrary to the suspicious sounding title, which seemed to hint at get-rich-quick schemes and a healthy dose of cheese, this was an incredibly pragmatic, informative, and honest book.
I have been keenly interested in entrepreneurship for a very long time. My father, at the dangerously old age of 50, started his own business, and his success was one of the reasons we were able to enjoy a solid middle-class life. His business philosophy and style were an inspiration to me, and the roller coaster he enjoyed, with some critical “by a shoestring” wins, and a dangerous episode where he teetered at the edge of a cliff and almost lost it all, gave me a healthy respect, admiration, and cautious desire for the path of the entrepreneur.
It was only last year that I officially left the warm embrace of the Man and started my own business, and I give a significant amount of credit to Felix Dennis and this book for that.
Getting valuable advice on entrepreneurship can be a very tricky task. Some “experts” are experts at selling their advice in many forms, and, in a painful irony, the only business they’ve ever started is the advisory business they’re asking you to support. On the other hand, truly successful entrepreneurs may have little time or interest to tell their full story, and can often be less than completely candid regarding fears, challenges, and failures. Their advice may be long on inspirational quotes, fun anecdotes, and self-promotion, but quite short on pragmatic advice and an executable plan.
But How to Get Rich is universal. Felix is brutally forthright with what it takes, and what it took him, to become a fabulously successful entrepreneur. His ego is most definitely not on display, he openly airs his mistakes and regrets, and he’s very candid with how luck shaped his fortune. The Felix-specific bits of his story are explained as just that, while the lessons he strives to impart from his experience are truly applicable to any entrepreneur. My overarching impression was this is an extremely honest and thorough account from someone who wants you to benefit from everything he learned.
On a personal level, I have little in common with Mr. Dennis. He was most certainly not a family man, and at various times in his life, he was wild to an extreme. No wife (he famously writes, “If it flies, floats, or fornicates, always rent it – it’s cheaper in the long run”), no kids, heavy drugs, countless prostitutes. It’s safe to say my fate lies on a different path than his, but I found the logic and soundness of his approach to business to be even more compelling when you combine it with his (at times) crazy personal life.
Some of the greatest lessons I took from How to Get Rich are:
- Own your own business. You will never get (truly) rich working for someone else. He backs this up quite well, and it’s one of the most important themes of the book.
- Never give up any ownership to your business, no matter what (this is particularly critical if you plan on going on multi-year drug and prostitute binges, but applicable in all situations). This is a welcome contrast to the massive ownership giveaways that seem to be the norm nowadays for any successful entrepreneur. It’s very hard to argue Felix doesn’t have this right. His pie may not have been the biggest, but he owned all of it.
- Execution is everything. Felix writes, “Ideas are ten a penny”, but successful execution of an idea is hard and rare. I’ve seen this throughout my career, so the examples and lessons he provided resonated very strongly. This also shows how one of the most-often cited excuses for not taking the leap – no good ideas – is quite weak.
- Hiring great talent is critical. This part of the book was hugely informative but also a bit embarrassing. The overall theme is that very bright, very good people will work their tails off to make you rich. You’ve got to hire the best, effectively delegate, and understand and reward to people’s motivations, but if you do it right, you’ll have a small army working as hard as they can to make you rich. My sheepishness came from thinking of all of the times I’ve filled this role for other people. Of course my eyes were wide open, when I agreed to work like a dog for a distant promotion, modest bonus, or even nothing at all (the proverbial “job well done”). But when Felix so thoroughly explains how this manipulation, if you can call it that, worked for him, it does give you pause as to why you’d ever work that hard for anyone but yourself.
- Fear of failure is the biggest hurdle. Very FDR-like, Felix says overcoming the fear of failure is the biggest, hardest obstacle on the path to riches, one that most people will never get over. It is sad to think that the hopes and dreams of millions are dashed by this single barrier which only exists in our minds, but this section goes a long way to help you conquer that fear.
If you are thinking of becoming an entrepreneur, I can’t recommend this book enough. The candor and honesty of how much it will take to become truly rich didn’t serve as my own blueprint, but by asking myself hard questions based on his advice and experience, it helped me enormously in charting my own course.
How to Get Rich gives a comprehensive approach to being an entrepreneur, but it is also full of lessons that will help you even if you don’t go down that path. It’s highly entertaining, informative, and fun. Thank you Felix, and rest in peace.